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Friday, August 26th, 2011

Real Intercultural Family in Guatemala: Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese and English

Real Intercultural-Families/

Welcome Susan and Shlomo!

Where are you from?
Susan: I was born in Connecticut but I grew up in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Shlomo: Near Tel Aviv, Israel.

Where do you currently live?
Guatemala City, Guatemala

How did you meet?
Susan: We met in New York—we were introduced by a mutual friend. It was a blind date.

Shlomo: I was in the Israeli air force and working on a project for the air force in an American company, supervising the purchase of equipment for Israel.

Susan: I was living in L.A. at the time we met working for a company, but I wanted to move to New York. So I was visiting my sister and this mutual friend thought we’d be good together. We were 28 and 30 when we met so it was pretty fast. We were married a year after.

So how did you end up in Guatemala?
Susan: We lived in New York for four years and then we moved to Israel for a year.

Shlomo: I finished my job in New York so I returned to Israel to finish out my contract—I was still in the air force. Then I took a leave of absence and we went to Guatemala. I promised Susan that she would have the opportunity to be with her father in his late age. So I took a leave of absence for one year but her father was getting worse and worse health wise. He passed away two years after we got here. We stayed here to keep developing his business–a plastics factory.

How did your family, Susan, end up in Guatemala originally?
My father was Czech and my mother was Hungarian. They were holocaust survivors–my mother was in Auschwitz and my father’s family was in hiding. Before the war, my father’s brother left (what was then) Czechoslovakia and went to the Netherlands. He wanted to immigrate somewhere but there were quotas everywhere. He was so upset he couldn’t get a visa. He told his friend he wanted a visa for anywhere that was furthest from civilization. His friend told him to go to Guatemala. So he came to Guatemala as a lawyer for the United Fruit Company. He managed to stay and after the war, brought the rest of the family.

And it’s a funny story how he brought the rest of the family. He didn’t have the money to bring them so he played the lottery. And he won! And that’s how he got the money to buy the tickets for the whole family.

Did you ever face any difficulties in people accepting your relationship?
Susan: No, we never had that. The only person that questioned it actually was my mother.

Shlomo: It was before we got married and she was worried because of our very different backgrounds.

How old are your children and where were they born?
Orly is 20. She was born in Guatemala.

Daniel is 25. He was born in the U.S.

What passports do you and your kids hold?
Susan: I hold the American and the Israeli. Daniel has the American and Israeli. Shlomo has just the Israeli and Orly has all three. It wasn’t crucial for Daniel to have the Guatemalan passport—we didn’t feel the need. He was born in the U.S. Orly was born in Guatemala so it made more sense for her to have it.

Shlomo: Israel is also the easiest of all three to get a passport–if your father is Israeli they almost oblige the child to be Israeli.

What language do you speak together?

In what languages do you speak to the kids?
Susan: English, but that was a big point of contention earlier on. When we were living in Israel, we went to a pediatrician who at the time suggested we not speak to Daniel in more than one language. He was saying that it compromised children’s mathematical ability because they’d be using more brain power for languages than math.

Shlomo: I started off speaking in Hebrew. Then this doctor told us there was research showing that it would negatively affect the kids. We believed him. Now, I still regret not speaking Hebrew to them and complain about it.

Susan: With Daniel, not speaking Hebrew was a really difficult issue for him with his grandparents. When he turned 18, he went to Israel and the thing he wanted to do the most was speak Hebrew. Now he speaks beautiful Hebrew. Orly also came to that conclusion. What’s interesting now is that Orly wants to learn more languages. She took Portuguese last semester and went to Brazil over this summer. Now she wants to take French. And she’s thinking of learning Italian.

I’ve been thinking about her interest in languages. When we wanted her to learn Hebrew in her teen years, she wasn’t interested. I think what happened is that she wants to take comparative literature as her major in college, and one of the requirements is that you have to speak three languages–you have to learn the literature in its original language. Something like that. So it has made her more interested in languages.

What languages do the kids speak?
Susan: Orly speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English and is partly fluent in Hebrew. She also speaks beginner French.

Daniel speaks Hebrew, Spanish, English and Portuguese. Portuguese he picked up from his friends and then took an online course. He has an especially good ear for languages.

Did you ever have any concerns about your children’s language development when they were younger?
Susan: No, but a funny story. My mother was Hungarian. The Hungarian accent is so thick no matter if it’s 100 years later–the accent just doesn’t go away. So whatever language they are speaking in, their accent comes through. When we came to Guatemala, the kids both started to speak like my Mom–they picked up a Hungarian accent in English for a while.

What religion are you?
Susan: We are both Jewish.

Was it difficult raising Jewish children in a predominantly Christian country?
Shlomo: There is a very, very small Jewish population—like .01%. It was difficult in the sense that they were different. And we are a modern Orthodox family so we keep the Sabbath, we eat kosher and it’s difficult to keep kosher when you’re one of the very few kosher families in the country. At that point there were less religious Jews; now there are more. We imported meat every few months and froze it. If you care about your religious diet and your culture, it is tough. There is also no Jewish school here.

Susan: But there’s no anti-Semitism here, so in that sense the children were in general ok with our kids being Jewish. They respected the fact they couldn’t go out on the Sabbath. A serious problem was that I would have liked them to have a better Jewish education. I would have liked them to have an easier time keeping the Sabbath–other kids to share that with. Since my brother had kids the same age, they all kept each other company. So there were seven or eight kids that were keeping it. Now they keep the traditions even when they aren’t at home.

Did they ever want to celebrate Christmas or do things that their friends at school did?
Susan: My mother was very interesting when it came to Christmas. She was in love with Christmas all her life so she had this little way of celebrating Christmas. In the factory all the workers were Christian. She put up Christmas trees in the factory but the rule was no one could do it but her. We also had maids that lived in the house–she would put Christmas trees in the maids’ room. The kids would go and decorate the Christmas trees with her. We had Chanukah and other holidays so they didn’t need Christmas—they enjoyed helping their grandmother decorate the tree.

Shlomo: They enjoyed, appreciated and were proud of being Jewish. There were rare occasions when somebody said “you killed Christ” or teachers who taught anti-Israel views at school, more than we cared our children to be exposed to. But we had the opportunity at school to bring our stories from the Holocaust or our point of view from Israel.

What are some of your cultural differences?
Shlomo: Susan was brought up more religious than I was. I’m more from a modern, non-religious family. My mother kept a kosher home to some level but we didn’t keep the Sabbath. But being Jewish outside of Israel, if you don’t have the nationality, you keep the traditions.

Susan: For Shlomo, it was difficult coming to a Spanish-speaking country and not speaking the language. Some of difficulties we’ve had is there’s a lot of cultural traditions in Guatemala or things you do in a Guatemalan way or say in a Guatemalan way.

Shlomo: Like kissing every woman around the room when you leave. Or certain expressions–I wouldn’t get jokes. But we didn’t have any serious issues of background or culture.

What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?
Susan: It’s hard not to have both extended families in the same country. Especially in Guatemala where it’s so family oriented, you sometimes go to the husband’s side of the family and celebrate or the wife’s side and celebrate. That’s one of the hard things about Shlomo’s family living in Israel–it becomes a smaller family.

Shlomo: It’s frustrating that the children couldn’t speak to my parents. My parents didn’t get to be with them and missed them growing up. Even when they talked, they could only exchange a short conversation. So it’s not so much intercultural challenges as it is geographic separation.

Susan: We are also more traditional or orthodox than Shlomo’s family, which is another challenge.

What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Susan: Certainly having family abroad and traveling to see them exposes you to a different culture. You become a citizen of the world by being in an intercultural family. You can’t really say which is your home. We feel at home in Israel, we feel at home in Guatemala, we feel at home in the U.S. That’s kind of a cool thing. You become more comfortable in different cultures–sort of like a chameleon. You can get used to things easier.

Shlomo: You belong to a few entities; they have friction points maybe, but you have the sum of all parts. You have the benefit of Jewish tradition, Guatemalan culture, being multilingual, interacting with Jewish people, Guatemalan people and American people. And you are exposed through informal education to a lot of different cultures.

Thank you Susan and Shlomo!

© 2011 – 2013, The Editors. All rights reserved.

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InCultureParent is an online magazine for parent's raising little global citizens. Centered on global parenting culture and traditions, we feature articles on parenting around the world and on raising multicultural and multilingual children.

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